Accutone is a company that specializes in hands-free communications solutions but they've taken their experience and expertise and used it to create a series of consumer earphones. From their website:
"Accutone Audio is about music, and our love of music has pushed us to build products that remove the barriers between the musicians and their audience. Continuing our corporate motto of "Clearer Communication Brings People Closer", our audio products are able to do just that by delivering exceptionally accurate audio output, just as our beloved artists envisioned."
Today I'll be looking at Accutone's flagship earphone the Pisces BA hybrid.
This product was sent to me for the purpose of an honest review. All opinions and observations here are my own, based on my experience with the product. I'd like to thank Angus from Accutone for the opportunity to test the Pisces BA.
Accutone online store
Hybrid Unit Model: Knowles WBFK
Hybrid Sensitivity (dB/SPL): 101 +/- 3dB SPL; 1kHz
Frequency Range (Hz): 20-22kHz
Cable Length: 1.3m
Noise Isolation: 26dB
Packaging and accessories:
The moment you see the box it's immediately apparent that this is a high-end or flagship offering. The exterior is a clear plastic box with a cardboard insert wrapped around a large storage case. On the front is a nice, clear image of the earphones with the Accutone branding at the top left and in large bold print at the bottom "FOR AUDIOPHILE". On the back is another image again showing the earphones along with the inline control.
Upon opening the package the first thing you'll notice is the lovely white leatherette case which is remarkably similar to those you get when buying a quality wristwatch. When you open it up you see the earphones firmly seated in a layer of grey foam, lifted up slightly to showcase the earphone's design. The earphone's come equipped with a pair of Comply tips. It's the sort of presentation that I haven't experienced before and it's very pleasing and enticing at the same time, giving an impression that you've just uncovered something rather special.
Lifting out the foam insert reveals the cable neatly coiled around a cutout ensuring that it's not kinked or tangled. Finally at the bottom is the standard Accutone pleather carry case, this time in a pristine white color along with a small bag containing a spare pair of Comply foam tips, warranty card and "Birth Certificate" card that shows your earphone's unique frequency response - an interesting and novel inclusion. After a quick glance at the Birth Certificate I thought surely this must be a mistake. But I digress, more on that later. Here is when I got my initial pang of disappointment because I've had plenty of experience with Comply tips and have yet to find any that fit my large ear canals. So I looked in the box again to make sure there wasn't another bag containing silicone tips but alas...nothing. What? You're kidding me right? I would once again need to go to my personal stash of oversize tips to get a fit and seal. Suddenly the premium unboxing experience had started to turn sour for me because when you look at what is actually provided there's not much to it at all.
Build, comfort and isolation:
The Pisces BA is a unique looking earphone, there's no doubt about that. The nozzle and casing is a nicely machined and polished, high quality aluminium. Attached to the housing is a long, white, curved stem at the bottom of which is Accutone's proprietary MMCX connector. I touched on the connector briefly in my review of the Taurus but I'll talk about it again here. I actually really like these connectors. They're much easier to attach and disconnect than the standard connectors yet they feel just as secure, have a nice audible click when you plug them in and they rotate freely. Brilliant. It's clear from the packaging and aesthetics that the Pisces BA is trying to make a statement. There's no sign of any Right and Left indicators and this is something that infuriates me every time I find them absent.
The cable is white to match the curved stems of the earphones. I quite like the look and feel of this cable. It's soft and malleable and does not feel sticky or unruly and microphonics are fairly minimal. The strain reliefs are all small and feel a little bit stiff but they appear as though they should be effective for everyday use. There's a 3-button inline control with microphone which is unfortunately the same as the one found on the Taurus model. It feels a little cheap though the buttons are responsive with solid clicks. What I really don't like about it is the very sharp edges on either side of the middle button which at any given opportunity will snag on shirt buttons and collars when you turn or move your head.
Using my own ear-tips I find these fairly comfortable to wear and isolation is average for this style of earphone so they do a decent job of blocking external noise and are suitable for use outdoors or in transit. Because the MMCX rotate these can be worn over-ear or cable down but due to the stems I found cable down to be more practical.
PC/JRiver Media Center > JDS Labs The Element
The Pisces BA are fairly easy to drive and worked well with all the sources I tried while remaining consistent in their sound output so I don't believe amplification is necessary and any modern smartphone or digital player is adequate for use.
After seeing the frequency response curve during the unboxing I didn't know what to expect in regards to the sound. Well actually I did kind of know what to expect but I was desperately hoping that there was an error in the graph or that it didn't represent the true sound. Well within seconds of listening I knew that the curve was accurate and as a result I personally would not get much enjoyment from these. The sound makes me think of taut piano wires, trips to the dentist and the subsequent drilling of teeth. Yes, this is what I would call a treble cannon.
At first I thought my pair were defective as I had read earlier reviews from other members whose opinions I trust and respect because they were describing a full, weighted bass while mine had next to none. Looking at the Birth Certificates in other reviews I noticed that they were sitting somewhere around 106-108dBSPL while mine were 93-95dBSPL. I contacted the company to ask if my unit was defective but they told me that the Pisces BA were designed so that every one has a unique frequency response. In theory I thought it was an interesting concept to have slight variations on a general sound signature but a 15dBSPL difference in bass response is by no means slight. It's an entirely different earphone. Let's continue...
Bass is fast and well controlled in general. Obviously with the unit I received there's no bleed into the mids because there's just not enough quantity to infringe upon any other frequencies. The little bit I do hear actually extends very well and the sub-bass can dig deep.
Midrange brings lots of clarity and has a somewhat airy presentation. The lower mids are a bit recessed, especially when compared to the upper mids which are well forward so naturally these are better for female vocals, leaving male voices sounding a little thin. Detail and tonality are very good throughout and the sound is very clean and uncluttered but I would certainly appreciate some additional body in the lower mids.
These have treble. Lots of treble. In fact it dominates the entire presentation, at least in the unit I have. Having said that it's a reasonably smooth sounding treble which adds to the sense of airiness. It's fairly even without any noticeable peaks or dips although in "Traveling" by Utada Hikaru there was some sibilance present. If it were balanced out with some bass I'd probably find it considerably pleasing.
The Pisces BA has a reasonably large soundstage with good imaging. I feel this is partly enhanced by the exceptional clarity throughout the dynamic range. In Mathias Eick's Midwest the percussion instruments are projected well outside of the head-space which is always impressive to hear from an IEM.
Pisces BA vs LZ A4 ($195 USD):
In terms of comfort the Pisces BA comes out slightly ahead due to its uniform rounded housing which doesn't have any edges to press against your ears. When it comes to resolution the Pisces BA comes out slightly ahead with its exceptional clarity, separation and sanitized cleanliness. Where the A4 shines is in its smooth and relaxed presentation and organic naturalness that makes it so easy to listen to and is loaded with musicality, not to mention its wide range of customization options with various filter combinations. When it comes to accessories the A4 is very generous while Accutone's offering is sparse in comparison.
I feel a real sense of missed opportunity with this IEM. It shows a lot of technical ability and sonic precision which could have been great if not for the massive imbalance in the frequency curve. There's just not enough weight in the low frequencies to balance out the sound and it becomes a "treble cannon". What it does it does extremely well with agility and finesse and I find myself being envious of other reviewers who received a "bass enabled" version. Accutone tells me that variations in the frequency response is intended and not accidental or due to poor quality control. They wanted to make each unit unique which is not a bad idea but it's apparent that these variations can be enormous to say the least. On their website it says
Sorry the bass on the unit I have is anemic and diminutive. There's also no mention of the variations at all on their website which I feel is misleading. When buying in this price range I think most people would like to have a firm idea of what it is they will be getting but with differences of up to 15dBSPL it's more like a very expensive lucky draw and you could end up with either a bass monster or screaming treble banshee.
In this mid-fi price range I would also expect a more generous set of accessories. The ones you do get are of a high quality but they're seriously lacking in quantity. I'd like to see some silicone tips included at the least. I've no doubt that other variations of the Pisces BA would be stellar in terms of audio quality but I genuinely feel that for the asking price of almost $400 USD it's quite a gamble if you don't know what sort of frequency curve you'll pull out of the hat.